A History of Ink in Six Objects

History is full of ink. From Paleolithic cave paintings to parchment scrolls to printed books, ink has recorded human history for over 100 millennia. Even the Kindle makes use of e-ink (a reusable ink that sits just below the surface of the screen), reminding its readers that ink is hardly a thing of the past. All inks are a means and method of communication – the first and longest-running form of information technology. 

Although historically ubiquitous and seemingly omnipresent, ink is anything but simple. Ever since the Pleistocene, inks of all types have been invented and reinvented, with every ink a product of its own unique context. On a basic material level, inks consist of two components: colour and a way for that colour to attach itself to its intended surface, be it papyrus, parchment or paper. But the way that those elements combine, and the ingredients used to make them, offer a variety of permutations, proving ink to be one of the most curious and complex objects in human history. 

Consequently, inks are inexorably bound to their times, geographies and utilities as every type of ink is the result of decisions about purpose, cost, usability and accessibility. Neolithic Chinese ink had different cultural requirements from medieval manuscript ink; printing ink is most certainly different from that found in modern fountain pens. Ritually made ink is culturally sanctioned, whereas other modern inks are intentionally disposable. The value of each ink is seen in the sum of the choices about how it is made and why.

Lydia Pyne | Published 16 May 2018
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National Gallery: Wales

‘The Welsh would be insuperable if only they were inseparable.’

In 1995, an obituary of the Welsh historian Gwyn A. Williams published in the Independent neatly described his view of Wales as ‘the very anvil on which the progress of the urban working class had first been hammered out’. It is true that the Industrial Revolution changed Wales, leaving an enduring association between the country’s southern Valleys and the production of iron and coal. Seen below, the artist Iwan Bala confronts Wales’ recent industrial past and the post-industrial era in which the Welsh were like ‘a naked people under an acid rain’. Williams is also quoted in Bala’s artwork – ‘Wales is an artefact which the Welsh produce. If they want to’ – faintly echoing the opinion of the country’s first historian, the 12th-century clergyman Gerald of Wales: ‘The Welsh would be insuperable if only they were inseparable.’


Caratacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome, after Henry Fuseli, 1792.

The Times They Were A Changin’

Joe Street | Published 04 May 2018
‘Has this country gone mad?’, declaimed the Democratic politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Saturday Evening Post during May 1968. To find the answer, all he needed to do was turn on the television, tune into the news and drop into a frenzy of political assassinations (including Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King), violent and nonviolent protests, an overseas war that was turning sour and a generation of young Americans seemingly hell-bent on summoning the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Fifty years later, historians still wonder about the meaning of this tortured year. Separated into three sections, Reframing 1968 cleverly...Read more »
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Across the Great Divide

In an age of renewed faction, a reminder of the power of friendship over politics. 

Friend to all: Sir Kenelm Digby. Studio of Anthony van Dyck, 17th century.
Friend to all: Sir Kenelm Digby. Studio of Anthony van Dyck, 17th century.

Sir Kenelm Digby lived through one of the most turbulent periods of British history. His father was hung, drawn and quartered for his role in the Gunpowder plot of 1605, when Kenelm was just two  years old. His devoutly Catholic wife, the society beauty Venetia Stanley, died suddenly in 1633 – and was portrayed on her death bed by Anthony van Dyck. His brother and his eldest son died fighting in the Civil Wars, while Digby was imprisoned by Parliament for his prominence among the ‘popish faction’, though he was allowed to keep a laboratory in captivity – which doubled up as a kitchen – where he continued to pursue his experiments in alchemy and natural science against a backdrop of intellectual ferment that would climax with the establishment of the Royal Society.

The Suffragette Songstress

Ethel Smyth took on the forces of inequality, in both politics and culture, producing highly acclaimed works of music that are now all but forgotten.

The Life and Death of North Africa's First Superstar

‘Never before in Tunisia’, noted the worried French Protectorate’s Director of Public Security, ‘has such a funeral taken place’. The cause of his concern was the funeral of North Africa’s first superstar, held in Tunis on 23 February 1930. By half past twelve, thousands of people had gathered on the Avenue de Londres, the main artery leading to Tunis’ Jewish quarters. They had come to mourn the singer Habiba Messika, who, aged 27, had been brutally murdered two days earlier.

Chris Silver | Published 24 April 2018

Poland and the Holocaust

Bitter memories: a German guard on the streets of Gdynia, occupied Poland, September 1939.
Bitter memories: a German guard on the streets of Gdynia, occupied Poland, September 1939.

Poland’s memory law, passed in February 2018, threatens to imprison anyone who falsely attributes German war crimes to the Polish state or nation. It exemplifies, albeit in extreme form, the manner in which individual countries’ forms of Holocaust remembrance are dictated more by national context than they are by any universal understanding of the Holocaust.

Daniel Tilles and John Richardson | Published 24 April 2018
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Volume 68 Issue 5 May 2018

The Ancient Greeks recognised that they were kin who shared a culture, yet their history is often one of internecine wars. Why did they not allow their acknowledged kinship to dictate a more peaceful form of co-existence? At the same time, there is an undeniable trend over the course of Greek history towards unity, especially in the form of federalism. Was this deliberate, in the sense that unity was seen as a desirable goal by the Greeks themselves, or was it a historical accident?

The underlying issue is that there was no national state called Greece in the ancient world. Most Greeks would have found such an idea alien. They considered themselves to be first and foremost citizens of their particular states. That was where they placed their loyalty, while the notion of a shared ‘Greekness’ or Hellenicity hovered somewhere in the background. When writers and politicians spoke of ‘Greece’, they sometimes meant the Balkan peninsula that we call by the same name. But they often used the term as an abstraction: the sum total of all Greeks wherever they were living, similar to the medieval concept of Christendom.

Tulipmania: An Overblown Crisis?

The Menniste Bruyloft (Mennonite Wedding) was a well-known tavern and musical centre in the Oude Brugsteeg in Amsterdam, a tiny alley near the port and the commodity exchange. In the early part of the 17th century it was run by Jan Theunisz, perhaps an unusual man for an innkeeper; he was a religious liberal, a printer, a scholar in Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. Although Theunisz probably died between 1635 and 1640, the tavern remained a popular sight for visitors, in part because of a cabinet of curiosities it contained.

Anne Goldgar | Published 17 April 2018

Monstrous Regiment

Whether the stories come via a 17th-century ballad, a 19th-century newspaper or a 21st-century tablet, the public has been fascinated for centuries by tales of women who put on men’s clothes, take a male name and run away to join the army – or to go to sea.

Mark Stoyle, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton, is the latest scholar to add to these entangled histories of war and gender. His forthcoming article, ‘“Give mee a Souldier’s coat”: female cross-dressing during the English Civil War’, is based on the study of hundreds of printed works and original manuscripts, and unsurprisingly drew The Guardian’s attention.

These stories of transgression have, as Stoyle writes, an ‘intrinsic human interest’ as well as a ‘peculiar elusiveness’ and have captured the imaginations of women dreaming of life outside restrictive gender norms. Feminist writers such as Julie Wheelwright, author of Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness, have written dozens of ‘cross-dressing soldiers’ into a history of women’s collective struggle for emancipation, which they themselves project back on to the past.

Yet does calling all these individuals who went to war in men’s attire ‘cross-dressing women’ account for all the possibilities of how they might have viewed themselves?

Catherine Baker | Published 17 April 2018
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